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Dealing With Strainers & Sweepers

I had the unfortunate job the other day to inform listeners on Canada’s National Radio how a paddler was killed after being caught in a sweeper in a local stream. It was just after ice out and the waterway was in flood. “Know your water and your skill level” was my response.  

Coming around a blind bend in a fast moving stream and spotting a fallen tree, or what some canoeists call a “strainer,” is a paddler’s worst nightmare. This blockage can be deadly!

Erosion of the river bank is usually the cause. The water’s speed on the inside bend of the waterway slows down and the outside bend speeds up; similar to two horses on a racetrack. The net effect is that the outside bank washes away, loosening the grip of trees rooted along the shore and increasing the chance of them tumbling across the river.

Photo credit: Tom Watson

Avoiding the obstacle is possible if it’s not completely blocking your path. First, resist the urge to hug the inside corner of the bend in an attempt to paddle quickly away from the tree. The natural pull of the current will take you to the outside curve and bring you broadside against the sweeper. Your boat will be pinned, and worse, you’ll be pulled under, entangled, and drown.

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So, fight your instinct and point your canoe head-on to the sweeper. Then back paddle and back ferry. This will direct you away from the fallen tree. The strong current will help you stay away from the blockage, go around the bend sideways, with the bow continually facing the sweeper.

A major problem exists if the tree is totally blocking the route. Hopefully only your canoe will get swamped and trapped and you’ll come out the other end wet, cold but alive. The only way to escape such an ordeal is to totally avoid flooded creeks during spring time thaw.

I realize how exciting it is to finally get back on the water after a long winter. But believe me, it’s not worth it. Just ask the family of the paddler who just recently died.

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